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New Water Map Washes Away An Urban Legend

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
October 29, 2011

A new, revised map of San Francisco has hit the stands. It’s not a street map or a bus map; it’s a map of the city’s underground waterways, and it includes a change to what could be San Francisco’s oldest urban legend.

The map is the work of creek geologists Janet Sowers and Christopher Richard. They’re like water detectives; they hunt for clues of old creeks and marshes that once ran through San Francisco. One mystery has nagged Richard for years.

Sorting Through The Facts

In the heart of the city’s Mission District stands a bronze plaque that marks the site of San Francisco’s origin, dated June 29, 1776. According to legend, that’s when Spanish settlers supposedly set up camp on the shores of a lake called Laguna Dolores – Dolores Lagoon — where Ohlone Indians fished and canoed.

That, Richard says, is impossible. He pulls out a topographical map and points to the location of the marker. He says back in the 18th century, the site overlooked a creek bed, a canyon.

“What just really nobody can explain is how you would have had a 40-foot deep canyon here,” he says — with a lagoon above it.

How can there be a lagoon on a ridge above a creek? “It would have immediately drained away,” Richard says.

This fact ate at Richard, a curator at the Oakland Museum, so he started combing through historical records. He says the story of the lagoon can be traced back to a single paragraph, written by the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, in March 1776.

Richard says de Anza was actually talking about three separate bodies of water, not one. But when historians read this, they got confused. Where de Anza described a creek, they thought he was talking about a lake.

“It’s all just a big misunderstanding,” he says, “but it has become legend.”

Richard’s work has ignited a controversy. One local resident, who helped get the plaque put up, said he was too angry to even be interviewed. He and others spent years researching the lagoon and its history. Now they’re facing someone who’s telling them they’re wrong.

Marking The Truth

Local resident Tom Schmidt, a software engineer, is not a fan of the plaque.

“I wish they’d take it down. I don’t like the sign. I’m sorry if that sounds awful.” He says the tour groups are noisy and leave trash on the sidewalk. And for what?

“I guess I don’t understand these things. It would be one thing if there were still historical buildings here, but there [are] just apartment buildings here now,” he says.

To mapmakers Sowers and Richard, that’s the whole point. It’s impossible see what the city looked like 250 years ago, so people have to use their imaginations.

“Imagine it as grassland. Imagine it with cattle grazing on it,” Sowers says, “and imagine being able to look over there and see that distance without these buildings in the way.”

And imagine it accurately. “Our lives are dedicated to figuring out what is from what isn’t,” Richard says. “That’s what a scientist does.”

The two creek geologists would like to see the plaque taken down, or at least revised. They say there’s nothing really wrong with a creation myth, but they’d prefer the truth. [Copyright 2011 KQED Public Broadcasting]

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